In last month’s deep dive, we explored how games and applied positive psychology can be used to boost intrinsic motivation.
Shortly after, one of our readers approached us with an interesting question: how are mobile and desktop devices used differently online and what does this mean for your business? This month, we’re going to provide an extensive answer covering both scientific insights and practical advice to help you optimise your user experience across the spectrum of devices out there.
Cross-platform design – is it worth it?
Recent statistics (08/15 and 09/15) by Enders Analysis underline the importance of cross-platform design, especially given that smartphones (of all shapes and sizes) are now “the primary method of accessing the internet, accounting for over 40% of time online” in the UK with a daily average of 105 minutes online per day. And that’s not all; they also found that “smartphones and tablets generated nearly half of consumer e-commerce transactions”.
That’s a lot of traffic. So where is it all coming from?
Well, it will probably come as no surprise that apps are fast positioning themselves as the linchpin of online interaction. As Douglas McCabe, the CEO of Enders Analysis explained in 2014, “time spent on apps represented four out of every five minutes that consumers are spending on the web and (…) the average person downloads 12 apps per month.” This means that if your homepage is only tailored for desktop use, you’re potentially missing out on valuable points for engagement with potential customers – something few businesses can afford to do.
That said, the solution isn’t necessarily to start developing your own app. Considering that many social apps have already made the transition into publishing platforms, it should go without saying that your website should be designed responsively at the very least, so that when potential customers access you via these sites they get an experience that meets their expectations.
This landslide towards mobile internet usage raises the question, whether interactions via smartphone, tablet or desktop lead to different emotional, cognitive and behavioural reactions. If our intentions and actions are similar across this spectrum of devices, then adapting our offering to different devices should merely be a question of resizing. If not, things become a little tricker.
Are all devices created equal?
It has long been debated whether the most effective way to engage users is through responsive interfaces versus device-specific ones. To answer this question, we have to explore whether people behave in the same way regardless of the device they’re using.
So let’s look first at responsive interfaces. Designers who believe that this is the best approach, tend to assume that users search for, process and act on similar information independent of the device they are using. This assumption makes it easy to serve up content in rearrangeable segments that can be scaled to fit the screen of whatever device the viewer is using.
What’s interesting, is that no-matter the device (whether smartphone or tablet), we still seem to carry out a whole host of activities, even when our experience of doing so feels less comfortable due to reduced bandwidth, smaller screen sizes, touch technology and frustratingly small keyboards (Grigsby 2015 and 2013).
(Now, so that this doesn’t become an essay of epic proportions, if you want to dig even deeper into responsive web design, you can check out this 2014 article by Nick Pettit and this white-paper by RapidValue).
…Or do we use different devices in different ways?
On the other hand, designers who take a more task-oriented or context-specific approach, are working on the assumption that we use specific devices for specific reasons, and in specific contexts. Taken to its conclusion, this would suggest that we might want different experiences depending on the platform we’re using (Marine 2014), a view which does seem to be supported by research.
So, what kinds of challenges are we facing when designing across devices for our customers?
1: Different devices at different stages of the shopping process
For a start, as Stewart (2014) and comScore (2014) explain, customers seem to prefer using different devices at different stages of the shopping process. At the start, users will tend to seek out rich descriptions, visuals and videos to select a product – here, the weapon of choice is usually a desktop or laptop. Then, once they know what product and brand they’re looking for, they’ll revert back to their tablet or smartphone to close the deal.
2: Different search queries
But that’s not all. Due to varying keyboard sizes and portability, another key factor to consider is that search queries actually change depending on the device at hand. For example, a third of all mobile searches are location based, and due to the smaller selection of search results shown on smaller screens, when using our smartphones we’ll tend to favour top results more strongly.
3: Different capacity to communicate information successfully
Finally and most importantly, as UX expert Raluca Budiu (Nielsen Norman Group 2014 referring to Böhmer et al 2011) explains, due to our limited working memory, finite attention spans, and the use of different screen sizes, the amount of information we actually “get” in any given online experience, can depend heavily on the device we’re using.
When we’re online, our working memory has to keep in mind both the goal of the search, and a mental map of where to find relevant information on the device we’re using. If a website makes it difficult for us to achieve these goals, it doesn’t take much for our working memory to get overwhelmed.
For instance, most of us will have had the un-gratifying experience of trying to navigate a new website for the first time, only to find that the interface is unusual or overly complex. We might persevere for a while, but at a certain point the search cost simply becomes too high and so we get frustrated and bounce off.
What’s interesting is that a smaller screen can actually make matters worse, as it limits the total amount of information that can be seen at once, again increasing our search cost (it takes us longer to find what we’re looking for).
In addition, because our smartphones and tablets are so portable, we tend to use them in more distracting environments, often running concurrent tasks (such as flicking through a Twitter feed while listening to a lecture) which drives down not only the quality of our attention, but also the successful transmission of whatever content we’re interacting with.
On the other hand, larger screens tend to have a greater capacity to communicate relevant information, not only because the environment is usually less distracting, but also because it’s easier for us to keep an overview of the page in our minds.
So, tablets… Are they small PCs or gigantic phones?
Although this question gets raised a lot, it’s also one of the hardest to answer. The perennial debate – whether tablets are more similar to smartphones, to desktops, or whether they’re a distinct species of their own – is a lively, messy and inconclusive one. As yet, research remains pretty divided, however what we can say is that tablets are particularly distinct for several reasons:
- They are used by individuals across a wide range of age groups from toddlers to seniors (Thygesen 2013).
- Unlike phones, which are personal devices used primarily by one person, tablets tend to be used and shared by several members of a household (Thygesen 2013).
- They’re ideal for comfortable non-work home computing (Apreche 2010).
So, while we may not know exactly how user interactions may differ on tablets versus their smartphone and desktop cousins, suffice to say that differences may yet emerge, and when they do we’ll review the research in the newsletter.
How to apply these insights
If you want to apply this research to your own design process, below are 3 top tips to get you started.
We’ve also devised a comprehensive set of questions to help you gain clarity on which approach you should take when displaying your content across a variety of devices.
- To successfully communicate to your users, you have to adapt your design according to the capacity of the device and the environment in which it’s being used.
- Provide shortcuts to make it easy to access important bits of information so that your users don’t have to scan all the information sequentially to find what they’re looking for.
- Run some tests to determine what your audience’s key goals are when using your website / app / service so that you can optimise your information architecture and reduce your users’ cognitive load.
Questions you should ask yourself
- How does your mobile audience behave on your site?
- Do they primarily access information in a passive way, or do they interact with the interface?
- If they interact, how can you reduce the need to type on smaller keyboards (e.g. by favouring auto-fill or buttons over text boxes)?
- What is their intent when accessing your page on the go?
- What information do they seek?
- Are they likely to be distracted while interacting with your interface?
- How can you make it easy for them to achieve what they came to do?
- Where does your site appear in mobile search results on smaller screens?
- How does your audience use mobile search?
- What queries do they enter?
- If it’s relevant, have you provided the location of your business to increase the likelihood of turning up in local search results?
- How does your site render on mobile devices?
- Can you aid the interaction by prioritising information, providing clearly distinct choices, reducing complexity and optimising for limited cognitive capacity of the user?
- Have you taken into account varying orientation preferences (landscape or portrait) on mobile devices?
- Is your device-specific page sufficiently responsive to fit different screen sizes within the same device category?
- What content/products do you offer to your mobile audience?
- Are they likely to prefer videos over PDF whitepapers and quick yes/no questions over lengthy surveys?
- Do you have the resources to develop a mobile site?
- Can you easily redesign your desktop site?
- Do your users actually use mobile devices?
- If so, what kind of mobile site do you need? (Here you need to weigh the risk of duplication, maintenance costs and development fees, against an improved mobile experience and differentiation of content on mobile and desktop).